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Trudge.

It was a good word, Buffy thought, as she trudged back to the YWCA. Very… trudgey. It reeked of hopelessness and… trudginess. For a moment, she almost paused in her trudging, searching for a synonym but unable to come up with one before the fog settled back over her brain and reminded her not to care. Even her mind was trudgey, had been for the past week. But that was okay. Trudging was better than thinking, better than feeling.

Better than remembering.

Buffy was all about the not remembering, these days.

She'd started a job at some cheap diner yesterday, grateful for the mind-numbing work and the accompanying exhaustion at the end of the day. She'd hoped it would be enough to stop the memories, but so far no luck. She needed something else to dull her mind even more, hence the trudging back to the dorm tonight instead of taking the bus. Buffy hoped to god it would be enough, because she didn't know if she could make it through another night otherwise. At night, she couldn't stop remembering, not the way Angel had trusted her when she'd told him to close his eyes, or the way he'd gasped in pain, or the look of confusion and utter betrayal he'd given her before being sucked into hell. Night after night, she slipped from waking memories into lurid nightmarescapes, a helpless witness as Angel endured imagined torment upon torment, all because she hadn't been quick enough or smart enough to stop him from awakening Acathla in the first place.

Her nocturnal thrashing kept the other women at the YWCA from sleeping, and this morning the director had regretfully suggested it would be best if she found somewhere else to stay. "There are places that can help you with whatever it is you're going through," the woman had said, and Buffy had nodded and said she'd be gone by the end of the week. Hopefully her first paycheque, combined with the small wad of cash she'd brought from Sunnydale, would be enough to find some quiet little dank hole in the wall to call her own. And if it wasn't enough… she'd find some place.

Or she wouldn't. She couldn't quite bring herself to care.

Trudge, she thought in time to the sound of her footsteps. Trudge, trudge, don't think about it, don't think at all, trudge.

She was so caught up in the repetitious slap of her worn sneakers against the concrete that she almost didn't hear the frightened whimpers echoing down the dark alley as she passed. But there was a part of her that would never not be able to hear that sound.

The fine hairs on her arms prickled, and Buffy slowed her steps, slower and slower, until she'd ground to a halt three buildings past the alley.

It would be easy to pretend she hadn't heard, Buffy thought, even as her fingers twitched automatically toward her waist, seeking out the stake she'd carried there for close to three years. She didn't have one on her now, because it had been daytime when she'd left for work, and more importantly, because she'd consciously left it behind. That part of her life was over. Finito. The Slayer in her was as dead as the boyfriend she'd killed to save the world.

Her body didn't agree. Her adrenaline had spiked, her feet had already turned her the other way, and her eyes scanned for a weapon as she drew closer to the alley and the sounds within.

Buffy could hear low growling now, over the whimpering. Again, she paused. Why did it have to be her? Hadn't she given enough? The vampire snack down the alley would've had a one-way ticket into Acathla's dimension and been dead already if not her. She'd given them an extra week. Wasn't it enough?

No, her feet said, continuing on their way.

She wasn't even the Slayer anymore, not really. Kendra had been the Slayer, called by Buffy's death to her own early demise, and now some other girl was getting all trained up in the way of the Chosen. Killing vampires, risking her life, watching her loved ones die – it was that Slayer's job now. Not Buffy's. Her feet ached, her back ached, her heart ached. She didn't want to be here.

"Hey," she said to the smear of black in the shadows. And… that was it. The extent of her witty repartee. Punnage was beyond her these days. The vampire didn't react, so Buffy said it a little louder. "Hey. Look. Let her go." Don't make me do this.

The vampire shifted, pinning his victim closer to the wall, and Buffy realized…

"Spike."

The universe hated her. It was the only explanation.

At the sound of his name he turned to face her, all golden eyes and ridged brow and bloodstained fangs. He stared at her, uncomprehending and zoned out on the blood, and then did a double take, gaze sharpening. He let his victim go without a second glance and pivoted to face Buffy, thumbs hooked into his belt. "Well, look at you, alive and kicking. Guess you beat Angelus after all. Figured you had – world's still here – but it looked like he had you there at the end."

Buffy spared a quick look to the woman stumbling away with a hand clasped to her neck, just long enough to reassure herself the woman would probably be okay, before turning her attention back to Spike. She wanted to look for a weapon – anything – but taking her eyes off of Spike for more than a fraction of a second was foolhardy. Then again, so was facing the Slayer of Slayers with nothing but her bare hands and her exhaustion-dulled wits.

"Yeah, thanks for your help," Buffy said, with as much sarcasm as she could muster. "The running away and leaving me to stop the apocalypse all by myself was super helpful."

With a shrug, he ran his tongue over his fangs, clearing off the remains of his meal, and she grimaced at the sight.

"Did my part, didn't I?" Spike's features melted to human. And – wait, was he happy to see her? The cheerful grin wigged her out far more than his bloodstained vamp visage had.

She took an automatic step backwards, moving on instinct just as he lunged for her.

"But no need to get sentimental," he said, blocking her fraction-of-a-second too slow uppercut with ease.

Stupid well-fed and probably well-rested vamp. She countered his return blow, but her reactions were too – trudgey. Though Buffy continued to repel Spike's attack with ingrained muscle memory, her brain remained mired in molasses, unable to see a way out of the situation she was in. A Slayer without a stake was like a Giles without a book, and while she might have prevailed on a different night against a different vampire, a part of her wondered why she should even try.

Only a few days ago she would've gladly sacrificed herself in place of Angel, but saving the world had required her to see the consequences of her actions through to the very portal-closing end. And now…

Now she could rest, couldn't she?

But when Spike had her pinned up against the filthy alley wall, much as he'd had his victim moments earlier – and, ew, he was happy to see her, in ways she was never ever going to think about ever again – Buffy knew that this was not how she wanted to die. At least not without a fight. She'd been there, done that with the Master, and had no desire to repeat the experience.

Spike had trapped her right arm behind her back, up against the rough bricks, and her shoulder was on fire, her arm numb and useless. Her legs were equally trapped between his, giving her no leverage to kick out or buck him away. Ignoring his comments about her lack of fighting prowess, about how easy this was going to be, how sweet, Buffy yanked her other arm free from Spike's bruising grip. She dug her fingers into his hair and ripped his head away from her jugular (all the while not thinking about why he was nuzzling her neck with tiny pricks from his fangs rather than ripping her throat out like a normal vampire, but whatever kept her not dead, right?).

"Bitch," Spike growled. He pressed harder against her, grinding her shoulder into the wall and making her cry out, and grinding other parts too, yellowed eyes sparking with malicious glee.

Gritting her teeth against the pain, Buffy bashed her head into his face, aiming for Spike's nose but getting his cheek as he turned suddenly to stare down the alley. "Ow," she said, eyes stinging. His cheekbones really were as sharp as they looked.

Perfectly still, coiled like a cat ready to spring, Spike ignored her in favor of whatever had caught his attention.

"Excuse me," Buffy said, miffed. "Battle to the death, here? Hello?" His intense focus and tautly strung demeanor had her whispering, though, and staring down the alleyway over his shoulder.

She didn't even sense the whatever it was until it was almost on top of them, materializing out of the shadows with a roar and a spray of sulphurous spittle that burned wherever it splashed her exposed skin.

"Oh, balls," he said, and dropped her in favor of defending himself against the hulking demon's inch-long claws and even longer teeth.

Buffy flattened herself against the wall, but the black, furred creature ignored her, intent on ripping Spike to shreds. Holding her arm close to her chest, she slid down the wall with sigh of relief. All she needed was a quick second to catch her breath, and if Furry wanted to do her job for her in the meantime, she was more than okay with that.

"Little help, Slayer?" Spike gasped as the demon sliced his calf open to the bone.

"And ruin the show? Why the hell would I -"

Spike ducked a slash of claws. "Because she'll be on you next!"

Buffy scrambled to her feet. "Not if I'm not here." At his disbelieving look, she mimicked his earlier unconcerned shrug. "More than happy to return your complete lack of help. Good luck with your impending death," she said with a nod at the demon, and began to edge her way down the alley.

"I'm dead serious, Summers," he gasped after her. "This thing's a brainless assassin. Unstoppable. You've got my scent all over you, and she'll suss it out. Soon as she kills me, she'll be after you, and it won't matter how far you run -" All this was grunted out as the two battled, with Spike most definitely on the losing side.

Did he really think she'd fall for that? Please, she wasn't called yesterday. Buffy rolled her eyes and continued on her way, one cautious eye on the demon. Who – in credence to Spike's claims – whuffed a giant, sulphurous inhale in her direction and slowly pivoted its head to follow her progress, vampire pinned helplessly beneath its behemoth foot.

Buffy froze. Maybe it was just coincidence, but it seemed wiser not to take any chances. "So… how do you kill it?" she said, scanning the alleyway once more for anything that could be used as a weapon.

Spike didn't answer, possibly because the demon had slashed his throat, visibly severing parts of his body that were never meant to be exposed to air. One more arc of its claws, and it would have him beheaded.

No more hesitating, then. Buffy didn't much like her chances against Furry, not with how easily it had bested Spike. Despite his warnings, she didn't see any option other than to flee, at least until she could find some way to defend against the demon. She made to take off, but against her better judgment her feet led her to Spike's side, and she snatched up the insensate vampire before Furry could finish off what she'd failed to manage all the previous year. Ignoring the burning agony in her shoulder, she cradled his head close to her chest as best she could to keep it from ripping the rest of the way off and turning him to dust in her arms as she pounded her way down the alley.

Breath coming in short, hot gasps, Buffy rounded corner after corner, the mingled scent of sticky blood and worn leather heavy in her nostrils. If Spike was right about the demon tracking her by his scent upon her, she was definitely making the situation way worse for herself. Too late now, though. Furry had torn through Spike – one of the few vampires she'd never managed to slay – as if he'd been made of tissue paper. What chance did she have against the creature when she didn't even know what type of demon it was or whether it would truly be after her? Better to save the evil vampire now, and sort it out later.

She slowed, shoulder screaming in protest against the weight it was being forced to bear, and good arm cramping so painfully she was about to drop Spike to the pavement at any second. A hasty glance behind her showed no sign of pursuit, but she couldn't be certain she'd lost Furry, what with the way it had materialized out of the shadows earlier.

Buffy stumbled to a halt. No matter how close the demon was, she couldn't run any farther, especially not with her unconscious burden. She eased down onto a bus stop bench, and did her best to assess the damage to the undead corpse in her arms without taking too close a look at where his insides had become outsides.

Even with the barest of glances, it was clear he was going to take some time to heal, and would need significant amounts of blood for the healing. He was going to need a safe place to hole up too, both of which would require money. Most likely everything she had left. Buffy stared down at the vampire in her lap with exhaustion-laden revulsion, and seriously considered abandoning him to the bus stop bench and taking her chances with Furry on her own. She knew Spike would have no compunction about doing the same.

If only she could be sure that he hadn't been lying about the scent thing, or that, if he hadn't, a long, hot shower and a full bottle of body wash would be sufficient to wash him away. If only she had a Watcher to ask, or books for research, or, hell, even a Willie to beat up for answers. But Buffy had none of those any longer. All she had in the way of answers was... Spike.

Extremely heavy, evil, unconscious, and centimeters-away-from-dust Spike.

God, she was tired. Too tired to think coherently, never mind come to any sort of decision.

With a sigh, she hauled herself to her feet and re-shouldered him. She couldn't fully lift his weight anymore, so she flopped his arms over her shoulders and gripped him around the chest, lugging the unconscious vampire like an overgrown ragdoll. His knees dragged along the ground, booted feet bouncing haphazardly with each step she took, but Buffy really didn't care.

Worn shoes slapping against the concrete, she trudged on.